Shooting and Retouching Nighttime Photos

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I want to share some tips for shooting a panorama at night. I’ll also go over retouching the image using the new Masking features in Lightroom. The power of these tools can help you create amazing fine-art results! 


For this panorama taken in Paris, I captured three photos at 1,250 ISO, which was the lowest I could go. Because my camera has built-in stabilization, I was able to shoot at 1/20th of a second. Also, since there weren’t any elements close to the lens, an aperture of f/4 gave me images that were focused throughout. When shooting at night, use the self-timer to avoid any motion on your camera while you shoot. Also, always make sure that you’re sharp while shooting. 


Now let’s go into the retouch. 

STEP ONE: First, we’ll transform the three photos into a single panorama. In Lightroom, select all the photos for your panorama, Right-click on one of the selected images, and choose Photo Merge>Panorama. 

STEP TWO: In the Panorama Merge Preview dialog, select the Cylindrical Projection method. Also, turn on the Fill Edges option so Lightrom automatically fills in any missing data around the edges of your photo. But don’t use the Auto Settings option as it will retouch your photo for you! Click Merge. 

STEP THREE: Let’s crop the photo to remove anything we don’t want and make the photo more dynamic. First, press the letter R on your keyboard to activate the Crop Overlay tool, and grab the Straighten tool (it looks like a level) in the Crop panel. Click-and-drag the tool along the horizon in your image, and Lightroom automatically straightens the image. Then tap the letter O to cycle through the different types of Crop Guide Overlays to aid you in your cropping. I prefer the Golden Ratio (snail-looking guide) and the Rule of Thirds (grid of nine equal squares). Press R again to exit the Crop Overlay tool and to apply the crop. 

STEP FOUR: For a basic retouch, we’ll open up the Shadows to +100, bring down the black point (Blacks) to –6, boost the white point (Whites) to +33, and add some Exposure (+0.30) and Contrast (+27). We’re not going to touch the Highlights, as we want to keep that blue-hour look. 

STEP FIVE: For the white balance, we’ll set the Temp to 5677 and the Tint to +25. 

STEP SIX: Let’s use the Brush tool to make this photo come alive. Click the Masking icon (gray circle with dotted outline) and choose the Brush tool. First, we’ll make a large brush with the Feather, Flow, and Density all set to 100. We’ll boost the Exposure to 0.95, lower the Clarity to –19, and then paint over the lights in the city to make them glow. 

STEP SEVEN: Click Create New Mask in the Masks panel and select Radial Gradient. Draw a radial gradient around the bottom area of the sky in your image and set the Exposure to 0.78 with the Feather set to 100. 

STEP EIGHT: Now let’s create another mask using the new option in Lightroom for selecting the sky. Click on Create New Mask again in the Masks panel and choose Select Sky. We’ll lower the Temp to –12 to make it bluer and increase the Tint to 12 to add some magenta. To finish, we’ll set the Clarity –10 to soften the clouds. 

STEP NINE: The eyes of the viewer are attracted to the brightest parts of the photo so, to “hide” parts of the photo that you don’t want people to notice, you can use a linear gradient. Click on Create New Mask once again, and select Linear Gradient. Here, we drew the gradient in the bottom-right corner, and then lowered the Exposure to –1.23 to darken that area. 

STEP 10: We’re not quite done with the masks just yet. Click Create New Mask, and choose Brush again. Lower the Exposure to –0.72 and the Highlights to –64, and then paint to darken any remaining bright areas to really hide them. In this case, we’re painting in that lower-right corner again. 

STEP 11: We’ll create another new Brush mask, boost the Exposure to 0.45, and brush over the water to make it pop. 

STEP 12: To finish up, we’ll go to the Detail panel and do some sharpening and, since we shot at such a high ISO, fix any noise there may be. My rule is that the noise reduction + sharpening should equal 100, so we’ll set the Sharpening Amount to 80 and the Luminance Noise Reduction to 20. To make sure that the sky doesn’t get sharpened, use the Masking slider while holding down the Option (PC: Alt) key. This will turn the image black and white: anything that’s white gets sharpened; anything that’s black doesn’t get sharpened. Drag the Masking slider until the sky is black (50 in this example). 

STEP 13: The last step is to add one last Brush mask with added Texture at 29 and Clarity at 16. We’ll paint over the buildings to make them stand out even more. It will make a big difference if we were to print this photo! 

Here’s the final result. 

The new masking feature in Lightroom is practical for tweaking one area at a time in your photos. I highly advise taking advantage of local adjustments; for example, adding Clarity to the overall photo will badly affect the sky. I hope you enjoyed this article, and that you shoot amazing panoramas at night!